Gina On My Mind

AND so it came to pass that the Commission on Appointments – composed of twelve Senators and twelve Congressmen and presided over by a non-voting Senate President – terminated the hearings on the nomination of Gina Lopez as DENR secretary.

“Apres moi, le deluge”, I could almost hear her saying as she listened to the judgment of the plenary, a judgment that, in the words of the Environment committee chair Emmanuel Pacquiao, was not “what I had expected”.

Even the nominee expressed surprise at a press conference later. We had the numbers last night, she said – which left “So what happened” questions in the minds of her listeners. Maybe that explains why some members of the Commission took pains to express themselves – because (I am speculating here) they had promised the nominee that she had his or her vote, but they did not deliver in the end.

I had a unique vantage point during all these, since in a parallel universe I work for a mining group whose flagship mine in Palawan had been praised by Gina Lopez herself as a model of responsible mining. (“Pwede pala”, you can hear her saying -- con todo raised fist -- in a short video we took during her visit and which we have posted on social media.). So I was in some ways wired into the workings of some mining players who comprise the Chamber of Mines – the responsible ones, we like to boast – which took up the cudgels for the whole industry.

At the same time the student of politics within me viewed the whole process with an excited eye, trying to understand the dynamics of all the players in the long and drawn out process. And there were a number of key dynamics, in this case as well as in every other confirmation case that presented itself.

What I considered the principal one was the one between the President and his nominee. Why did I consider this the principal one? Because as a student of politics it is my understanding that the confirmation process, especially here in the Philippines as compared to its counterpart in the United States, is greatly driven by the Executive branch.

Then there was the dynamics between the Secretary-designate and her fellow Cabinet members. All of them, you see, are “alter egos” of the President. But let’s face it: among them there is a “primus inter pares”. Not every Cabinet member weighs the same (literally and figuratively) and the position of executive secretary comes with even greater weight. How Gina related with her colleagues would matter.

There also was her dynamics with the legislators, especially those who would be passing judgment on her as mandated by the Constitution. Half of them would be senators, and some of the Senators had “ties that bind”, to the mining industry or even to ABS CBN! The same could be said of the Congressmen. These would matter.

There was the dynamics between the CA members and the President – with those considered allies of the President expected to follow his bidding while those considered “outside the kulambo” – mainly the members of the Liberal Party – expected to take a partisan stand on appointments. That’s even how it is in the United States.

Even within the Commission there were dynamics – between the Senate and House contingents, and among its individual members. It is interesting to note that Senator JVee Ejercito and San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora used to be close political allies – until 2016 when the senator’s mother and the congressman’s son ran against each other for Mayor of San Juan, with the former winning by less than 3,000 votes.

Later on there too was the additional dynamics between the President and media outlets he was criticizing as purveyors of “fake news”. One of them was the media giant owned by the family of the DENR Secretary-designate! In my political mind I figured that this should have an impact as well.

And finally there was the dynamics between the nominee herself and the general public. It was very clear from the beginning that a concerted effort was undertaken to generate as much public support for her as has never been done with any other nominee before her time. Day after day, social media was populated with well-crafted videos showing the nominee in a very positive light, mouthing such phrases as “social justice”, “caring for the poor”, “uplifting the plight of farmers and fisherfolks”, and negative ones as well including “greedy miners who care for nothing but profit” or something to that effect. And the pictures: waters stained red by silt from mining operations; mountainsides bereft of green; Indigenous People decrying the injustice they have suffered at the hands of big operators who had displaced them from their ancestral domains to export shiploads of ore to China.

The effect is a widespread perception that mining does nothing but damage the environment – never mind that in reality, less than 1/3 of 1% of our total national land area is subjected to mining. Or that mining is the major cause of deforestation – never mind that in reality, it is urbanization and the kaingin system, even conversion to agriculture that causes our loss of forest cover. Or that mining is poisoning our waters – never mind that it is untreated human waste and urbanization and even agriculture that is putting our bodies of water at risk. Am I making this up? No – go read the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 as well as the previous PDP 2010-2016 of the NEDA.

But who cares about these facts?

When she was first appointed, I dared say that the nominee could become a truly groundbreaking Secretary of the DENR if she could channel her advocate’s passion into a crusade to enforce the law properly and make every violator account for his violations. Which she did – except that she did it in a way that her passion prevailed, laws were set aside, the “Secretary’s prerogative” was often cited for rejecting the recommendations of her technical team and imposing her own will especially when it came to penalties. For example, after praising the international environmental management audit ISO 14001 as the highest international standard, she sets it aside and imposes her own audit, because, she said, social justice had to be achieved. But what were the parameters? Then she went off to accuse mining as the cause of earthquakes – only to dial back later when confronted by geology experts. Just as she dialed back on her accusation that legislators were being paid P50 million to vote against her after she was dared to name names.

The other day I was keenly watching Judy Taguiwalo face the same Commission on Appointments that Regina Lopez faced – and was surprised by the whale of a difference in the reception the former received, the bad joke “na-ano lang” notwithstanding. I was even more surprised at the way Taguiwalo conported herself as she responded to questions, a woman clearly passionate for her people and technically qualified for the job. Nary a motherhood statement, and hardly a recourse to an aide to explain on her behalf what she meant. Oh, yes: Taguiwalo didn’t need a friendly Senator to come to her rescue – never.

And that’s why we bring down the curtains on the brief stint of Gina Lopez at the DENR – which could very well be a blessing in disguise for her, She has a role to play in environmental advocacy in the country, even if it means taking extreme positions on issues; that’s what an advocate does. But that’s not what a Cabinet member does, really, just as that’s not what a legislator does. Because governing often means compromise (sometimes unfortunately understood pejoratively) where the people are involved because interests are varied and no single man or woman has the monopoly of the love of God or country or the poor or the environment.

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